Many never thought it would happen, but it’s true – BlackBerry has launched an Android device, the BlackBerry Priv.
By adopting Google’s full-featured ecosystem, the Priv solves one of the biggest issues with the last several BlackBerry devices. But is the Priv a good phone? A good BlackBerry? To find out, I decided I’d type out this entire review on the phone. After all, the physical keyboard is arguably its greatest selling point, so what better way to put the Priv (and my thumbs) to the test?
At first glance, the BlackBerry Priv is an impressive looking device. The 5.4-inch display up front is absolutely gorgeous, with a 2560×1440 resolution giving it a sharp pixel density of 540 pixels per inch. It’s an AMOLED display, giving it excellent contrast and deep blacks that can’t be reproduced by LCD tech. Viewing angles are great, with only minor colour distortion at certain angles. Colours feel quite natural by default, but white balance and saturation can be adjusted to your liking in the settings. The screen also has subtle curves at each side, making the phone look and feel thinner. To top it all off, the display is surrounded by a metal frame.
The large speaker grille beneath the screen is a little misleading, as the Priv only uses a single speaker in its left side. A microphone is found on the other side of the grille. The speaker can’t match the BlackBerry Z30 or Passport for volume and quality, but its front-facing position gives it an advantage over what’s found on the iPhone 6s or the Samsung Galaxy S6.
The power button on the Priv is found on the left side of the phone, while the volume up/down and mute buttons are on the right. Part of me feels like I would have preferred them the other way around, but that’s just nitpicking. The buttons are solid otherwise, with no issues to speak of. I’m quite confident they’re made of stainless steel, but I haven’t been able to confirm this.
On the back of the device, you’ll find a glass weave material similar to what was used on the BlackBerry Q10 and Z30. It’s very grippy and curves slightly at the edges, making the Priv easy to use for a phone this big. The rear camera protrudes slightly, as is typical for a modern smartphone, but the metal ring around the lens should keep the glass from touching anything you place the phone on.
Sliding up the screen reveals this phone’s most notable feature, the physical keyboard. The sliding mechanism is rock-solid, smoothly moving the screen up and down when you apply just the right amount of pressure. There’s a satisfying click every time it opens and closes as well. The Priv is remarkably slim despite this mechanism, and you could easily fool someone into thinking it’s just another touch-only device.
Underneath all of this is a Snapdragon 808 processor with 3GB of RAM. It’s not at the same level as Apple and Samsung’s latest processors, but it’s as good as they come from Qualcomm. The Snapdragon 810 might be faster in short bursts, but it’s known to suffer overheating issues, giving the 808 an advantage under extended loads. The processor generally keeps things running smoothly on the Priv, but there are moments where things bog down a little. These problems seem to be down to software however, and I’ll discuss them later on.
The Priv is BlackBerry’s first device to ship with Android, running 5.1.1 Lollipop out of the box. This immediately addresses one of the greatest concerns with prior BlackBerry phones – the ecosystem. The Priv has access to over a million different apps on Google Play, and full compatibility with numerous fitness trackers, smartwatches, and the like. That might not be unusual in today’s market, but it’s a first for a BlackBerry.
BlackBerry has done a good job with their implementation of Android. It closely resembles the stock configuration from Google, but with a few thoughtful touches that can be customized or opted out of. BlackBerry preloads their own launcher, but it doesn’t look much different to Google’s launcher. If you’re looking to customize it, the launcher supports icon packs from Google Play. It also offers the ability to swipe up or down on an app’s icon to reveal a pop-up widget. This gives you quick access to app functionality without having a widget take up space on your screen.
The BlackBerry Launcher supports typing from the home screen to start a search as well, either through Google Now or BlackBerry’s own search app. The latter is pretty basic compared to Google Now, but it can display detailed search results from BlackBerry’s preloaded apps, like specific emails in the Hub. Keyboard shortcuts are supported as well, allowing you to open an app, speed dial, or perform other specific functions by just holding down one of the physical keys – not unlike the shortcuts available on BlackBerry 10. Virtual shortcuts are available too, in the form of icons on the home screen.
Then there’s the Productivity Edge, which allows you to swipe inwards from one of the screen’s curved edges to glance at your appointments, messages, tasks and interact with your favourite contacts. You can open up any of the related apps from there as well. The Edge is accessible no matter what app you’re in at the time.
However, the Productivity Edge requires that you use Blackberry’s suite of preloaded apps – BlackBerry Calendar, Contacts, Tasks, and of course, the BlackBerry Hub unified inbox. They’re all pretty solid apps, although anyone accustomed to Android may not like the idea of piling all their messages into a single app with the Hub. The Hub on the Priv also lacks integration with a number of popular messaging apps, like WhatsApp and Skype. For now, the Hub supports email, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and BBM, as well as your text messages and call log.
If that works for you, the Hub is a great concept, one which will be familiar to anyone coming from BlackBerry 10. You can setup custom views that only show messages from specific accounts, and it’s a pretty good email client with support for rich text formatting and granular notifications (but only for email). It also allows you to attach files straight from Google Drive and OneDrive. But if you keep the preloaded Gmail client alongside it, you’ll have to remember to turn off notifications in the latter. Otherwise, you’ll get duplicate notifications. You can always choose to disable the Hub and most other preloaded apps if they’re not to your taste, however.
Other changes from stock Android include an additional two shortcuts when you swipe up from the home button. They’re set to BlackBerry Search and BlackBerry Hub by default, but can be changed in the settings. The design of the app switcher is different by default, with squares of varying sizes representing the apps, but this too can be changed.
There are, however, a few rough edges in the software. The Hub can be slow to react to your inputs, while the Productivity Edge has disappeared randomly two or three times. The phone also has an inexplicable tendency to heat up significantly during certain tasks, like updating multiple apps or using a navigation app. If it spends enough time in this state, animations start to stutter. BlackBerry is planning a software update before the end of this month that will hopefully buff some of these out.
Privacy & Security
Privacy and security have been a huge part of BlackBerry’s marketing push for this phone. In fact, Priv stands for “the privilege of privacy,” according to BlackBerry. But in this regard, things aren’t quite as great as BlackBerry would like you to think.
The Priv comes with an app called DTEK, which will give your device a security score based on device integrity, your screen lock, factory reset protection, and other factors. It also tracks how often apps access certain device permissions, like your contacts, location, and microphone. You can even enable notifications for when specific apps access something.
It’s not a bad idea, and it could come in handy for users who aren’t familiar with security. It can also help keep track of suspect apps. However, it definitely needs some work. BlackBerry and Google apps are both hidden from the app’s watchful gaze, and it could benefit from an option to turn on notifications for new apps by default. You’re also limited in what you can do with any app that oversteps its boundaries. You can uninstall it, but that’s not always practical. DTEK will be a lot more useful once the Priv is updated to Android 6.0 Marshmallow, which includes the ability to disable specific permissions for apps.
The story is much the same in terms of security. In an interview with Tom’s Hardware, the Chief Technology Officer of security firm Copperhead describes why BlackBerry’s implementation of Android isn’t much more secure than other versions of Android Lollipop. Long story short, a couple of minor improvements exist, but they’re outweighed by the improvements made by Google in Android 6.0.
It’s worth noting that this doesn’t mean the Priv is insecure per se. Security is complex, and you can’t always split devices into the secure and the insecure. Relative to most Android OEMs, the Priv is not a bad foundation for privacy and security. It’s encrypted by default and the Hardware Root of Trust makes the secure boot procedure very robust, in theory. BlackBerry also brought over Picture Password from BlackBerry 10, a password that is almost impossible to guess even if you watch someone input it. But this phone is begging for an Android Marshmallow update. BlackBerry says that update will arrive sometime in the new year. In the meantime, BlackBerry has committed to pushing Google’s monthly security updates to users, but these will require the cooperation of your carrier – unless you bought a factory-unlocked device.
The physical keyboard is almost certainly the most interesting part of the Priv. BlackBerry is best known for their high-quality keyboards, but never before have they combined it with an operating system as popular as Android. In theory, it should be the perfect combo for anyone who missed having a good set of physical keys.
Well, the good news is that BlackBerry has done a great job with it. How great? Well, I typed the entirety of this review (two final rounds of editing excluded) on the Priv and I didn’t want to kill myself thereafter. As far as smartphone keyboards go, that’s high praise. The keys are quite satisfying to use, and you quickly develop the muscle memory to type without looking at them. The slide-out screen doesn’t make the device top-heavy, despite its size – it remains well-balanced when using the physical keyboard. All things considered, BlackBerry did a remarkable job making the Priv ergonomic.
But I will say that the keyboard is not perfect. In order to make the device as slim as it is, the sculpted keys aren’t as pronounced as they’ve been on other BlackBerry devices. The keys are quite short too, especially when compared to the Classic. As a result, the keyboard felt a little cramped at first. I grew accustomed to it after a day or two, but it’s something that could stand to be improved.
Like the Passport, the Priv’s keyboard is touch-enabled, allowing you to use it for scrolling, deleting words, inputting word suggestions, and as a trackpad for editing text. You can also swipe down on it to reveal a selection of symbols on the screen, covering anything absent from the physical keys. App support for gestures can be spotty, however. Facebook, for example, scrolls in the opposite direction to every other app I’ve tried. Some apps will also refuse to detect keyboard gestures if you’ve touched something other than the text field before typing, but a quick tap on the screen usually fixes this.
So, at a point in time where almost everyone has surrendered to virtual keys, is there any practical benefit to having the keyboard? Well, I certainly thought so. Having the entirety of the screen available, with no space occupied by virtual keys, was much appreciated while writing this review. And I could focus on what I was writing without ever looking at the keyboard. I suspect I could still type faster with a set of virtual keys, and yet I would never endeavour to type something as long as this review on a touchscreen. The keyboard shortcuts and gestures that I mentioned earlier provide their benefits as well. Your experience might differ, but I know I enjoy a good set of physical keys.
The Priv still has a virtual keyboard of course, and it’s an excellent one. BlackBerry brought their keyboard from BlackBerry 10 to Android, with word suggestions appearing in the frets as you type. Each suggestion appears above the next key that you would have to hit to type that word, and you can just swipe up if it’s the word you’re looking for. If not, keep typing and it’ll keep trying to guess. It makes one-handed use quite easy on a phone this big.
The Priv carries a substantial 3410 mAh battery, just 40 mAh shy of the Nexus 6P and BlackBerry Passport. BlackBerry claims it’ll get you through 22.5 hours of mixed use.
The battery rarely had a problem getting me through the day, but BlackBerry’s estimate might be a little ambitious. Active usage takes an unusual toll on the battery, despite its size. This might have something to do with the heat issue I mentioned earlier, as the processor could be overworking itself during basic tasks. Nonetheless, only heavy usage has stopped my Priv from making it through the day. Battery usage in standby is surprisingly good, and it’ll happily go two days on a charge during light usage.
In case you do run out of power early, the Priv supports Qualcomm’s Quick Charge 2.0. This allows it to charge from 0 to 60 percent in 30 minutes. However, the charger that comes with the Priv doesn’t support the standard. It’s a regular 1.3-amp charger that takes about 3 to 4 hours to fully charge the battery. If that’s not good enough, a Quick Charge 2.0 charger can be found for less than 15 US dollars on Amazon. But considering the Priv’s price tag, BlackBerry ought to have included one of their own.
Some models of the Priv, like the STV100-1 from ShopBlackBerry, also include support for both Qi and Powermat wireless charging. My model is an STV100-3 from Telus, however, which doesn’t include this feature.
The Priv comes with a rear-facing camera that, at least on paper, is a serious piece of kit. It has an 18-megapixel sensor with 4K video support, optical image stabilization, and phase-detect autofocus to quickly acquire focus. It’s also got dual-colour LED flash for more accurate colours. BlackBerry had the camera certified by Schneider-Kreuznach, an Oscar-winning manufacturer of cinematic camera lenses.
The end result is a genuinely good smartphone camera. It’s certainly the best camera we’ve ever seen on a BlackBerry, though that’s hardly saying much. But even compared to other modern flagships, it holds up well. Colours are usually quite natural, although it will occasionally get the white balance wrong. Focusing and taking a photo is usually quick, which should help with action shots. The depth of field is pretty shallow for a smartphone, which can produce some lovely macro photos. The optical image stabilization is extremely impressive as well, allowing the Priv to use half-second exposures without any noticeable blur. Even with those long exposures, however, the noise reduction can get a little aggressive in dark photos, which in turn means less detail.
As far as video goes, the Priv can do 720p and 1080p at up to 60 FPS, as well as 4K at 30 FPS. Quality is pretty good, but the autofocus sometimes wanders before locking onto a subject. Anything past 1080p at 30 FPS doesn’t support enhanced image stabilization as well, which is a shame as it seems to make a difference in how smooth video is when you’re on the move.
BlackBerry preloads their own camera app on the Priv, which features functionality like HDR, live filters, and a panorama mode. The app will be enough for most users, but lacks any manual controls for enthusiasts. The Priv doesn’t support the appropriate developer hook-ins for third-party apps with manual controls either, although I’ve heard this is in the works. The camera app could also use an indicator to warn users when it’s shooting HDR, as it’s often caught me off-guard taking multiple exposures. Processing photos can take a little longer than expected as well, to the point where there’s a delay after taking one photo before you can take another.
There are a few better smartphone cameras out there, but BlackBerry’s put together a genuinely great one here. An update or two to the camera app are called for, however.
The front-facing camera, on the other hand, is a little disappointing. In the last year or so, we’ve seen manufacturers put much better sensors into their selfie cameras, but the Priv sticks with a two-megapixel fixed-focus camera. It’s good enough for casual selfies, but definitely a step behind the competition.
Call and Signal Quality
The call quality on the Priv is as excellent as we’ve come to expect from BlackBerry. The earpiece is loud and clear at all times, while the noise-cancelling microphones do an excellent job of making your voice heard on the other end. I never had any issues making phone calls, no matter the environment.
As far as signal goes, I haven’t seen any issues with the Priv maintaining a usable signal whenever possible. It’s not notably better than anything else I’ve used, but definitely not any worse. This can be highly dependent on your location and network however, so your experience may differ.
I’ve spent a little over a week living with the Priv, and the last ~3200 words typing on it. And you know what? Despite the hiccups, it’s been an enjoyable experience. Unlike BlackBerry 10, I haven’t had to use any workarounds to get things done and apps installed. The productivity-focused touches added by BlackBerry have complimented Android nicely. Combined with the keyboard, there’s plenty to like about the Priv.
It’s not perfect of course. There are still things I miss from BlackBerry 10. Notifications on Android are less granular and just seem a little poorly thought-out at times. The Hub on Android doesn’t feel as complete as the original. And the gesture-based nature of BlackBerry 10 is difficult, if not impossible, to recreate on Android. Then there are the bugs. I haven’t ran into any dealbreakers like some other reviewers, but BlackBerry has work to do polishing the software on the Priv. The hardware could use a few minor tweaks too. The front-facing camera is a step behind what’s become standard for flagship phones today, and the physical keys ought to be a bit bigger.
But these are just minor details. All things considered, the Priv is a solid flagship device for 2015. It’s something you no longer have to be a BlackBerry diehard to consider. It’s not just a good BlackBerry, it’s a powerful Android phone with a distinct identity. If BlackBerry can stay on top of software updates, they’ve got a winner on their hands.